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Monday, August 25, 2014

How to Survive (and Excel) as a Graduate Student Instructor

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It's a critical task of academia to produce new educators for the future, but for many students starting graduate school this semester, the word inspires groans and feelings of dread.

The first graduate student teaching assignment might force you out of your comfort zone. It is true that teaching for the first time is a big adjustment, but with the right attitude and preparation, you might just
discover a skill you never knew you had.

To learn more about what makes a good graduate student instructor (GSI) and how to adjust to the position, I interviewed Dr. Ginger Shultz and Grace Winschel at the University of Michigan. Dr. Shultz (top photo) is a postdoctoral teaching fellow and educational researcher in the chemistry department with 4 years of experience working with freshman GSIs. Grace (bottom photo) is a 5th-year graduate student in Dr. Pavel Nagorny's lab and has also co-authored research on chemistry education with Dr. Shultz.

Dr. Shultz jumped right into teaching when she got to graduate school, serving as a GSI for General Chemistry during her first year as a Ph. D. student. "I was intimidated to teach [Organic Chemistry] or [Physical Chemistry]," she writes. "I really sold myself short because I was afraid." She also obtained a fellowship that enabled her to teach a hands-on science lecture once per week at elementary schools in her area. "Once I got over my initial fears, teaching turned out to be the easiest part of my first year of graduate school. After that it was just something else to balance."

Teaching is More than Lecturing; Teachers are More than Answer Banks

Shultz's experiences as a GSI contributed to her teaching philosophy. "I had it in my head that I had to know all of the answers. One time I gave a student a wrong answer and they complained to the instructor," she writes. Uh-oh. Big trouble coming, right?

Well, not really. "The instructor met with me and explained that I wasn't supposed to be providing students the answers. It's the teacher's job to model thinking for the students and to help them learn." Shultz challenges students by facilitating their thinking so that they guide themselves to the answers to their questions. She encourages the GSIs teaching in her classes to do the same. "Changing your thinking about your role as a teacher is the first step toward becoming a good one. Some people are naturals at teaching, but effective teaching can also be learned."

Grace Winschel is an experienced GSI and has worked closely with Dr. Shultz both in instruction and in education research. She echoes Dr. Shultz's sentiments. Even for experienced GSIs teaching within their field of study, it is possible to be stumped by a student's question. "Of course, it is ideal to know the answers," Winschel writes. "But if you don't know, you can say, 'This isn't my field, let me point to you some places I think you can find the answer,' or, 'I'm not 100% sure I'll give you the most thorough answer here, so why don't you come to my office hours and we'll work on it together?'" Winschel also suggests asking a student to pose the question to their lab group to see whether the students can collaborate and come up with a solution on their own.

While it is not the end of the world for a GSI not to know the answer to a question, Winschel does stress one thing: "Be helpful. That is the goal. We want to avoid you saying, 'I'm not answering that question because it's dumb and you should know the answer.'"

Advice for Your First Class

Whether you are teaching a lab section or a discussion/lecture, having to perform a new task in front of strangers can be very stressful. Dr. Shultz stresses that, when nerves are a problem, Socratic teaching is still your friend. "You're not helping students by giving them the answer. It takes some of the pressure off when you let go of that expectation." She goes on to say that students do not learn simply by sitting passively - "like Neo in The Matrix" - and likewise, faculty do not teach effectively simply by lecturing. "Modern educational psychology says that knowledge is constructed by the learner. Once you understand your role as an instructor - a facilitator of learning and not a transmitter of knowledge - you can be much more effective." Shultz suggests that teachers merely need to present material and construct an environment that is conducive to learning and to questioning, to students building their own knowledge, and that "ultimately, [students] are the architects of that knowledge."

Winschel has taught both labs and discussions at the University of Michigan and offers loads of advice for both. One important and relatively easy thing is to stay on top of your grading. "It's easy to not bother to grade your worksheets one afternoon, but if you're teaching two sessions a week with 20 students per section, it backs up really quickly until you are buried in worksheets and then you die." She also adds that keeping up with grading is helpful to the students, as they always know exactly how they are doing in the class. Nothing throws a student into panic mode more than receiving three weeks of failing-quality work all at one time - and it can lead to administrative problems as well.

Of course, basic people skills come in handy too. "I tend to be extremely peppy, and that works for me," writes Winschel. She adds that all personality types can make for great GSIs. However, it is always important to consider the image you project to your students. "From a student's perspective, GSIs can be a little intimidating, so having an abrasive approach to your [teaching] can be difficult for your students to handle. There's a difference between being sarcastic and being mean or unapproachable."

Lastly, GSIs should be prepared for the fact that the way students have the material presented to them in lecture might be very different from the way the GSI was taught at their undergraduate institution. That fact can lead to confusion for students when the GSI is teaching them one way and the lecturer another. "Going to lectures with the undergrads definitely helped me see what they were learning from a Michigan perspective," writes Winschel. She writes that doing so also helps you to bone up on the material for yourself, which can ease some of your tension in presenting it to students during your own class.

Lab Sections: A Special Beast

Grace Winschel oversees a lab during the WISE
 (Women in Science and Engineering) summer workshop
at the University of Michigan. Image credit: WISE.
Teaching lab presents a unique set of challenges. While the pressure to deliver expert knowledge is not quite as high since students are mostly following pre-written directions, there is an entirely new set of issues associated with making sure that students get through the lab session safely and efficiently. It can be overwhelming. How am I going to keep everyone safe? What do I do if an accident happens - will I handle it correctly? Do I actually know chemistry at all? "Serious stage fright can happen in your first day teaching lab," writes Winschel.

But there are simple things you can do to prepare, and the "stage fright" does not last forever. Winschel wrote that bad nerves were her biggest obstacle going into her first lab, but stresses the importance of being comfortable in the classroom lab environment. "I showed up to my first lab session early to explore the lab and make sure I knew where things were." Simply being able to direct students to the right part of the room quickly and easily means that you will be able to field most of their questions on the first day without any problems.

With teaching labs, safety takes precedence over everything else. The primary responsibility of a lab GSI is to get all of the students in the door, through the lab, and back out again with no injuries or accidents. "The biggest difference between an experienced GSI and a new one is the steps taken towards preventing [safety] incidents. Over time, you develop a sort of second vision [for safety violations]." One of the best things you can learn as a lab GSI is how to casually patrol your lab, looking for small things like unlabeled vials, loose hair, and missing goggles. Check in with your students regularly to see how they are doing. In addition to making the lab session go by a little faster, it goes a long way towards preventing the kinds of large accidents that you have nightmares thinking about. Your students will also feel that you are more actively involved in helping them, which makes them feel better about the class.

It's Not as Hard as You Think. Really.

All in all, teaching is not as bad as you think it is going to be, suggests Winschel. "Relax! And when that's impossible, act relaxed. Engage with your students, try to be helpful, be friendly. That will usually calm the nerves and build rapport with students - all positive things!"

For GSIs, a little effort goes a long way towards improving the learning experience for students. When asked what makes a good GSI, Dr. Shultz responded, "They care whether a student is learning and want to do a good job teaching. They are respectful of students' time and effort. They are flexible and will adapt to the needs of their students in real time. They are approachable, but at the same time aren't afraid to hold students accountable for their part."

Now, that doesn't sound so hard, does it? You might even like it.

For University of Michigan students who have already found that teaching is their thing and are interested in getting involved with research in chemical education, contact Dr. Shultz. ("Talk to me! I have projects and ideas coming out of my ears.") She can be reached at gshultz@umich.edu. Also, check out the U of M SLAM (Student Learning and Analytics at Michigan) Seminar Series and the School of Education Events Calendar for more information on how to get involved in other departments.

1 comment:

  1. In addition CRLT (center for research and learning and teaching) here at the university of Michigan http://www.crlt.umich.edu can help prepare and train teachers to become better educators.